Is It Just Too Much?
After you hear it the fifth or sixth time, you start to believe it.
All this time, I’ve been thinking I had the short end of the stick in filing Sunshine Law requests for school district election results with Missouri county clerks. But, as it turns out, they may be just as frustrated as I am.
“I am covered up right now,” said Don Firebaugh, Madison County‘s clerk, when I called to ask for some additional information.
Well, August is fast approaching, so it occurred to me there might be some truth in that statement. But, at the time, I brushed it off as one more attempt to keep from doing the work. Of course these clerks are busy, but how difficult could it be to look up a couple of numbers? And how many requests for public information do they really get?
Well, the answer might be more than you would suspect.
“I’m pulling my hair out,” said Hubert DeLay, the Mississippi County clerk. He had already sent me some data, but I needed a little more, and the news was obviously distressing to him. He said it just wasn’t possible for him to spend much more time on a “low-priority request” like mine.
In all fairness, he sent the extra information I asked for that same day, about an hour later. But our conversation got me thinking. If my request was low-priority, who else was asking for information?
Well, I still can’t answer that. I have asked some county clerks I’ve been on the phone with recently, but they haven’t been willing to say who’s asking for information. What’s clear, however, is that someone is.
“We get requests all the time,” said Shelley Harvey, Audrain County‘s clerk. She did not elaborate, but the message is the same from almost every county clerk I’ve asked. People are using the Sunshine Law — and liberally.
Gary Youngblood, Barry County‘s clerk, said they hadn’t received too many requests, but that it could be difficult to fill requests like mine. Barry County charged me a modest amount for the information provided, but I have since had to call twice for additional information (not because the records were incomplete; they were, in fact, quite good) but because I had thought of other information I wanted to have.
Each time, Barry County said they would have to charge me extra. I asked for invoices. Both times, Mr. Youngblood gave me the extra information for free. He told me he wouldn’t be able to do it again, though.
“We just try to accommodate people,” he said. But he made it clear that he is responsible to the taxpayers, and providing free information — even to a nonprofit — is not always an option. Especially, I would guess, if the volume of requests is high.
The Sunshine Law is undoubtedly useful, and public information should be available. But at what price? Perhaps county clerks who have been dragging their feet on my request have reason to do so. Maybe they really are swamped with other requests.
If so, what’s the answer? Well, busy and stressed county clerks may have found one. The high fees some counties have requested may be their way of discouraging those who aren’t serious about their information requests. Those who value the information might be willing to pay more to get it. Those who don’t value it as much won’t pay the premium.
This is problematic for someone on a budget, but it is what we should expect, maybe. The Sunshine Law is well-intentioned, but my experience has left me wondering: Is it just too much for public officials?